La Liga returns with Barcelona reeling from Lionel Messi blow and Real Madrid still needing Gareth Bale out

The Spanish top flight is back this weekend with Koeman attempting to stabilise the ship at Barca while Zidane cannot seem to offload his ostracised Welsh attacker

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The 90th La Liga was due to start on Friday evening with Granada, who’ll play European football for the first time this season, hosting Athletic Bilbao.

Games played on Friday and Monday evening have proved unpopular and the Spanish Football Federation promised no more, yet La Liga scheduled the game on Friday as they want games to be played on as many days as possible in their efforts to attract the biggest global audiences.

The Federation intervened and it wasn’t until Wednesday that the date was switched to Saturday. Alaves’s game against Real Betis, scheduled for Monday, has also been moved to Sunday. Only in Spain.

There will be no fans, with La Liga’s president Javier Tebas saying this week that he did not expect them back inside stadiums until a Covid vaccine is found.

There have been no high profile pre-season tours either, but behind closed doors friendlies and uncertainty about its biggest star leaving.

"We were worried but not seriously," said Tebas this week of Lionel Messi's threatened departure. "We want Messi to be with us, he is the best player in history of football and we want him to end his career in La Liga.

"We’re pleased he is staying with us and not going to another league, but La Liga is also bigger than one person.”

Barcelona fans are relieved too, but troubles remain. Club hero Ronald Koeman is Barca's third manager of 2020. He's met with the Argentine but Koeman wants his team to be fitter, a meritocracy in the dressing room, to have more speed and he wants a return of the high pressing game which was harder to achieve with the ageing Luis Suarez, who is set to move to Italy, and Messi.

Philippe Coutinho is back from a spell loan at European champions Bayern Munich and, if they don’t play Fati as a No 9, Barca will look for a forward to replace Suarez. Antoine Greizmann needs a better season.

Koeman is the man to make big changes to an ageing team, while the club cannot spend their way out of problems. Barca are also still reeling from Messi's desire to leave, yet the Argentine is back in training for his 17th first-team season and fellow forward Ansu Fati, 18, was excellent for Spain midweek.

Camp Nou was a fortress last season with 16 wins from 19 matches, but will it be the same without fans?

Atletico Madrid, third last term, opened their new club museum this week. Midfielder Saul is convinced that his team have got a squad to challenge Real Madrid and Barca. The big two haven’t having spent big during the pandemic, but Atletico were 17 points behind their neighbours last season and 12 behind Barca. That is a big gap to close.

Zinedine Zidane’s Real finished last season with 10 straight wins after lockdown to overtake Barca and are favourites again this time round.

They have brought in €96 million (Dh419.7m) from player sales and would like to lose the drain of Gareth Bale's wages but there are few takers for the expensive, ostracised Welshman – even with Madrid offering to offset his £600,000 weekly wage. Another big earner, Eden Hazard, needs to improve after struggling for form and fitness last season.

Madrid open at Real Sociedad, who’ve had six positive Covid-19 cases, a week on Sunday, the Basques thrilling crowds in their renovated home last season as they finished sixth.

Others which have followed with major work on their stadiums are Real Madrid, Levante and Osasuna, undergoing extensive redevelopments and improvements while fans can’t attend matches.

Levante's neighbours Valencia remain a basket case and the ownership of Peter Lim is unpopular with fans who are notoriously difficult to please in Spain's third biggest city, yet their Mestalla home proved almost impregnable last season – they lost only once. Valencia are dreadful away and they've sold Ferran Torres to Manchester City, Rodrigo Moreno to Leeds United, plus Francis Coquelin and Daniel Parejo to Villarreal.

Valencia start at Celta Vigo who avoided relegation by a point last term. Villarreal, who finished fifth last season, were also boosted by the arrival of former Valencia manager Unai Emery. Villarreal start at home to Eibar, still by far the smallest club in La Liga and which has done incredibly well to stay up for six seasons.

Huesca, one of the three promoted sides, back at the first attempt as champions, are also tiny. They start at home to promoted Cadiz on Sunday, the Andalusians famous for their vocal fans will sadly be missing.

Barca and Atletico start a week later due to their involvement in August's Champions League. As do Europa League specialists and winners Sevilla, who welcome Ivan Rakitic back for another Champions League campaign.

Home draws need to be turned to wins for Sevilla, but another top four finish will be their aim and maybe a seventh Europa League since 2006 if they fall out of the Champions League.

Sevilla’s first game is an Andalusian derby at Cadiz next weekend and they have the Super Cup final against Bayern Munich in Budapest before that, but their biggest game is against neighbours Real Betis who continue to watch on with envy.

Betis need to be more consistent and last season’s 15th place was disappointing. Manuel Pellegrini is in charge, the 66-year-old Chilean now at his fourth Spanish club. His first target should be their woeful away form – only one victory in the whole of last term.

Getafe finished eighth after fading and finally falling out of the European spots on the last day. The side from the Madrid satellite had been third after 25 games, but they were overachieving. Real Madrid or Barcelona can never overachieve. They are expected to win every game they play, but something, as ever, will have to give.